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Thursday, September 29, 2016

What to Do When Everything is Unraveling

On September 17, 25 people from four congregations and one ecumenical ministry met at Wesley United Church in Cambridge to begin a journey called “Into the Promise.”

Into the Promise is a collaborative learning project initiated by Rev. Christine Jerrett, a
Christine Jerrett
United Church minister from Sarnia. It is based on the work of author and consultant Alan Roxburgh, using his recent book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World.

Alan argues that churches in North America are in the midst of a “great unraveling.” The church that many of us were raised in seems to be coming apart. We have spent almost fifty years trying to “fix the church” – trying to find solutions that will stop people, especially young people, from leaving. But none of those efforts have worked. The church can’t be “fixed” – not in the sense of recreating the church we once knew.

Alan Roxburgh
Alan argues that this unraveling is actually the work of the Spirit. God is active in the world. And God still needs the church. 

But the basic questions have changed – from “church questions” (“How can we bring people back? How can we “fix” the church?”) to “God questions”  (“What is God doing in our neighborhoods and communities, and how can we join God?”)

This is a fundamental shift in vision and orientation, and it demands that we develop a new set of practices. Alan outlines five of these practices:
·         Listening. Learning to listen deeply to one another, to Scripture, to our neighborhoods and communities.
·         Discerning. Learning to see what God is up to in the lives of people.
·         Experimenting. Learning to develop simple, practical, “lightweight” ways of joining with God.
·         Evaluating. Asking, “What did we do? What are we learning? Where did we see God at work?” (And, not being afraid to fail!)
·         Deciding. Creating new, sustainable ways to be the church.

These deceptively simple practices involve learning a new set of skills. That’s what the
congregations involved in Into the Promise will be doing over the next 18 months. Small teams from each congregation will meet regularly. They will come together every other month to share their experiences and to receive coaching from Christine.  We will all learn as we go, realizing that we’re in uncharted territory.

Into the Promise is not a typical study program with a beginning and an end. Its purpose is to begin to shift the culture of our congregations. It involves learning to see things in a different way and to undertake new practices.

Into the Promise is also designed to be collaborative. Congregations will share with one another what they are doing and what they are learning. And the hope is that others will benefit from that learning in the future.

The “great unraveling” that Alan Roxburgh describes is disruptive and stressful. But it is also a time a hope and excitement because the Spirit is at work creating a new future.

Who’s involved in Into the Promise? Wesley United, Cambridge; St. Luke’s United, Cambridge; St. John’s-on-the-Hill, Cambridge; Rockwood-Stone Pastoral Charge; Knox United, Ayr.

Want to know more about Alan Roxburgh’s work? Visit

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Binding and Bridging

I think one of the most influential books of the last 20 years is Bowling Alone: The Collapse
and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. Putnam, a sociologist at Harvard University, describes how traditional forms of community have been on the decline in American – and I think we can say, Canadian – society since World War Two. He shows how people have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and democratic structures. The title of his book comes from the fact that while more people are going bowling, membership in bowling leagues has plummeted. People are literally “bowling alone.”

Bowling Alone helps to explain what is happening to our churches. Churches are one of those forms of social participation that is in serious decline. The drop in attendance, disappearance of Sunday School, and aging congregations can be seen as part of a massive social change in which an increasing individualism is undermining the groups and organizations that our parents and grandparents relied on to give structure and meaning to their lives.

One of Putnam’s key ideas is what he calls “social capital.” We all know about physical capital – money, property, the goods and assets that can be used to create wealth, and that is the basis of our economy. Putnam argues that there is also social capital – the connections between people on which communities are built.

Think of all the communities that you are a part of – your neighborhood, school, social clubs, service organizations, church, coffee group at Tim’s. Think of how thick and rich the webs of relationships are that both strengthen community life and are strengthened by it. Think of how you are sustained by those connections, and how much poorer and thinner your life would be without them. Imagine that on a society wide level, and you’re thinking about social capital.  

Putnam goes on to argue, though, that there are two kinds of social capital. There is “binding” social capital which he says functions as a kind of social “superglue,” creating group identity and cohesion and giving people a powerful sense of belonging.

Then there is “bridging” social capital which acts like social “WD-40,” building bridges between different kinds of communities.

Churches are rich in social capital. That’s what people mean when they talk about their church as a “family,” a place where they know they belong. Even a small congregation has a complex web of connections.

We need this binding social capital, but it can be too much of a good thing. While it fosters close-knit relationships and loyalties, it can also lead to closed circles that are suspicious or hostile towards those who aren’t part of their group. Nobody has stronger social capital, Putnam argues, than the Mafia or the Hell’s Angels.

So what many church members identify as the most important quality of their congregation – that it is a “close knit family” – can also make it a closed circle. Churches that have strong binding capital can send a very subtle, but clear message to outsiders and new comers that there is no place here for you. This can happen in spite of the sign on the lawn that says “All Welcome.”

Binding social capital needs to be balanced by bridging social capital. As well as creating a strong sense of family, belonging and loyalty, churches need to intentionally forge connections beyond their members – with those outside the church, with new comers, and, with future generations.

Binding used to be enough when churches were replenished from within, when children grew up to be the next generation, or when new waves of immigrants were continually arriving. But that’s not so anymore, as once solidly ethnic denominations like the Christian Reformed Church are beginning to discover.

As the kind of social change that Putnam describes becomes more dominant, it’s natural for communities like churches to instinctively turn inward, seeking the comfort and reassurance that the ties that bind them to their friends provides. Ironically, though, as they become older and smaller, churches may actually become more resistant to new people who could revitalize them.

In other words, while our impulse might be to rely even more on the comfort and security of binding social capital, we need to find ways to strengthen the bridging social capital of our congregations if they are going to remain vital and alive in a rapidly changing world.

Rev. Paul Miller,

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Do We Really Need A Mission Statement?

I used to think that every church should have a mission statement – a short and snappy couple of phrases that everyone can remember and follow. It should be visible everywhere, on walls, on the website, on the Sunday bulletin. It should be rehearsed at every board meeting and known by heart.

I’m not so sure any more. The truth is, most mission statements are not worth the time we devote to them. Not that there’s anything wrong with mission statements per se. Some are really effective. The best church mission statement I ever heard was five words:  “More people, more like Christ.” You know immediately what that church is about. It’s about growing in numbers, and helping people live more Christ-like lives.

But that’s the exception, not the rule. A lot of church mission statements are a string of
platitudes that nobody remembers and is rarely, if ever, referred to.  

What should you do if your mission statement is not working for you? One thing you should not do – launch into another time consuming missions statement writing process!  Because chances are, what you come up with won’t be any more effective than what you had.  
Unless your mission statement is seriously at odds with your church’s values, the best thing to do is to leave it be.

But make your current mission statement more useful.

Here are a few ways to do that.

A Mission Statement is not a box to be checked. The reason many churches spend hours writing mission statements is they’ve been told they should have one. At a recent meeting I attended, someone said, “All the experts say we need a mission statement, so we’d better write one.” But a Mission Statement is only useful if you follow it. Karl Vaters, who writes a great small church blog, says this:  “Great mission statements don’t make great churches – or fix broken ones. We have to do the mission first. We shouldn’t put anything into words until we’re already putting it into action.”

More important than simply writing a mission statement is honestly and regularly evaluating your church’s mission.  

Focus on the key words. Even if you’re happy with your mission statement, you should identify the words that really matter. I call them the “weight bearing words,” the two or three or four essential words that support the whole statement. Pay particular attention to words that have the potential to challenge and stretch you, that would change you if followed them. For example, if your statement contains a word like “hospitality,” have the courage to dig into that word and ask, “What would it mean for us to be a community that practiced radical hospitality?” We waste lots of time on trivial word smithing. We should spend more time talking about the weight-bearing words, the words that really matter.

Does everyone know what it means? Many church mission statements use words like “community,” “family,” or “inclusive.” But  ask people what those words mean, and they don’t really know, or they have very different understandings. Noted consultant and author Kennon Callahan used to say, “All churches are friendly churches – to the people who attend them.” Likewise, all churches are “inclusive” – for those who feel included. If you define your church as “inclusive,” ask, “What do we mean by that word? How do we live it out? What differences of age, income, education, gender, orientation, race, ethnicity are reflected in our congregation? What are the limits of our inclusivity? If we welcome and include everyone, why does everybody look so much alike?”

If you want to make your mission statement more effective, create as many opportunities as possible for people to talk honestly and openly about what it means.

Is the word “mission” part of the problem? Mission is central to the church’s existence. It comes from the Latin missio, which means “to send.” Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” (John 20: 21) Our mission is what we are sent by Jesus to do and to be.

But over the centuries, the word has picked up a lot of negative baggage. It conjures up pictures of colonial missionaries imposing over other cultures. It suggests imposing our beliefs on others. And, for 1500 years, the church’s mission has been offloaded to professionals and experts so most ordinary people don’t think it has anything to do with them.

Without getting rid of the word “mission,” then, can we find other words that work better – purpose, goal, the difference we’re called to make? Your mission statement should simply express the purpose for which your congregation exists. If the word “mission” is getting in the way, find other words to express it.   

Remember: writing a mission statement is not the completion of a task, it’s only the beginning. It’s not having a mission statement but living your mission that matters.   

Monday, July 4, 2016

Elie Wiesel: "Wounded Faith"

Tributes have been pouring in for author, teacher and Holocaust-survivor Elie Wiesel who died on July 2 at the age of 87.
Elie Wiesel Sept 30, 1928 - July 2, 2016

Wiesel’s classic Night was one of the formative influences on my spiritual and theological development. Although written as a work of fiction, it is based on Wiesel’s own experience in the Nazi concentration camp where his father, mother and younger sister all perished.
Wiesel’s forty books all deal with the mysteries of suffering, God and faith, and the vital importance of memory. Wiesel has written extensively about the suffering of the Jews, but with no trace of self-pity, rage or entitlement. His voice has carried such moral authority because he has spoken on behalf of all innocent victims, not only his own tribe. He insists that we remember so that we will learn, grow and heal. 

Wiesel also reminds us that faith is a struggle and that doubt is an essential element of belief. 

It is common today for people to give up on faith too easily. “I see terrible things happening – so God must not exist.” “The Bible was written 2000 years ago – so it must not be relevant to today.” “Christians are responsible for wars and oppression – so the church must be wrong.” “I can’t make sense out of doctrines like the Trinity – so I’ll just dispense with them.” “Science has vastly increased our knowledge – so we’ve outgrown ancient traditions.”
From Elie Wiesel we can learn the importance of struggling with faith and wrestling with God.

In a 2005 interview with writer Cathleen Fansani, Wiesel talked about what he called his “wounded faith.”

Why on earth does he still believe? I want to know. I need to know.

“Doubt is there all the time,” he says, softly. “The questions are there, and all my questions are stronger than all my answers.”

And yet you continue to wrestle with God?

“I continue because what is the alternative?” he says.

You could walk away.

“And do what, really? Could I not believe? If I were not who I am, of course I would not. But I am who I am,” the professor says. “I cannot not believe. Not because of myself, but because of those who were before me. It is my love for and fidelity to my parents, my grandparents, and theirs, and simply to stop, to be last in the chain, is wrong. It would humiliate them. They weren’t at fault. Why should I do it to them? I feel such a presence when I think about them and even when I don’t think about them. I want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to break the chain. And to choose what? Is it better to be agnostic or better to be an atheist? I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. I accept having faith. I call it wounded faith, my faith is wounded. But I believe. A very great Hasidic master once said, ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart.’ And I paraphrase it differently: No faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith. I have better arguments against faith than for faith. Sure, it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”

(From Cathleen Falsani, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.

Wiesel’s voice is so powerful because it is the voice of authenticity. There is nothing facile about his faith. It is the faith of someone who has wrestled with God. Atheists often accuse believers of taking the easy way out, of using God as an avoidance strategy. They haven't listened to Elie Wiesel. Faith for him is not an opinion considered at a safe distance. It holds him in its grip. It compels him. Far from blinding him to the realities of human existence, his is a faith “with an open eye.”  

I fear that we are losing that willingness to wrestle with God. I hope that Elie Wiesel’s voice will continue to be heard by future generations, that they will read him and remember him, and be both challenged and encouraged by his remarkable, wounded faith. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Never Too Late to Try

My wife and I recently watched the movie Danny Collins. It's about an aging pop star (Al
Al Pacino in "Danny Collins" 
Pacino) who was hugely talented as a young man, but chose money over art. He made a fortune singing the most shallow brand of pop tunes. He lived the life of a rock star -- booze, cocaine, women -- and now well into his 60s, it's starting to catch up with him. 

One day, Danny's manager (Christopher Plummer) brings him a letter, written to Danny by John Lennon forty years earlier. Danny never got it. His agent intercepted it and sold it. In the letter Lennon tells him how talented he is, and that he should follow his music. 

In a moment, Danny realizes that he's wasted his life. He wonders how his life would have been different if he'd got that letter when it was first sent. 

But he makes some changes. He cancels the rest of his tour. He moves into a hotel near his hometown in New Jersey. And he tries to make amends with the son he fathered on a one-night stand with a young groupie, but has never known. 

It's a story about how it's never too late to change. It's a story about the possibility of redemption. 

What I liked about it, though, is how believable the story is. The letter from John Lennon motivated him -- but it didn't magically transform him into a totally different person. He didn't suddenly become a saint. Change comes hard. He continues to hurt people and let them down. 

But he perseveres. The movie closes on a question mark -- but it's a beautiful question mark, opening onto an unknown but hopeful future. 

It made me think of my life (I'm 62) and, of course, the church. (Everything makes me think of the church these days.) It made me think of all the times I've thought it was too late to change, too late to start something new, too late to try to undo old mistakes. 

It made me think of all the times I've believed that about churches -- and the churches I know have believed that about themselves. It's hopeless. We're too old, too few, too far gone. And when that's the story we believe, it's hard to see moments of grace when they come to us. 

Danny Collins reminded me, that, while we can't turn back the clock, it's never too late to try to fashion a different tomorrow. 

Recently, I've been involved in a couple of church situations that I really thought were hopeless. "These people will never make it," I thought. And then, unexpectedly, there was, if not a transformational breakthrough, at least a cause for hope. 

We are where we are. And where we are is where God comes to us, and calls to us, and can use us if we are available. The God of the Bible is always at work creating a new and unexpected future. We are never past the point when we can do something to get on board with that future. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Look Who's Using the E-Word

I serve on the Board of our local Habitat For Humanity affiliate, and recently I attended the Habitat National Conference in Kitchener. 

As with most conferences, participants could sign up for a variety of workshops. One that I attended was on "Branding" -- specifically, how to use social media so that people will recognize who you are and know what you're about. It was led by Sean Moffitt, a well known marketing guru and author of the book Wikibrands: Reinventing Your Company in a Customer-Driven Marketplace. 

It was fascinating, but a lot of it was over my head. The information flew past at warp speed, and Sean talked about social media and technologies I had never heard of. 

But there was one moment that made me sit bolt upright. 

"It's no longer about product promotion," he said. "It's about brand evangelism."

Did I hear right? Did he just use the dreaded E-word? That word that Christians invented but that most of us are ashamed to utter? 

Did he just say EVANGELISM?

Evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion which means "good news." It's been central to Christian identity since the beginning. We have heard good news, and we need to share that good news with others. 

But what our churches have mostly stopped doing, marketers are embracing enthusiastically. Brand
evangelism assumes that it is not the corporation that calls the shots anymore, it's the customer. Companies are realizing that if they want their brand to take hold, they need more than high priced advertising. They need millions of ordinary people who will spread the good news for them. 

Brand evangelism is based on a few key principles. 

1.   The EXPERIENCE matters more than the PRODUCT. 
Branding is not just about the practical merits of this car, shampoo, cell phone, yogurt over its competitors. It's about the promise of a certain experience or lifestyle. It's about how this product will change your life. 

2.  PARTICIPATION matters more than PURCHASING
Brand evangelism takes off when people have a sense that they are participating in something bigger than themselves. By aligning with this particular brand, they are joining a movement. They are connected to others who share the same experience. 

Marketing used to appeal to people's long-term loyalty, loyalty that could last for generations. ("My Granddaddy was a Ford man, my Daddy was a Ford man, and I'll be a Ford man till the day I die!") Marketers today know that the ground is constantly shifting. Because people are looking for an experience, not just a product, they will quickly move on if something else promises to deliver that experience better. So companies need to be constantly thinking ahead and be ready to change their approach on a moment's notice, or they will be left behind, as former giants like Sears, IBM, GM and Blackberry have found out.  

4.  STORIES are critical
Marketers have become great storytellers. Or, more precisely, they have created the conditions in which their customers can become great storytellers. Brand evangelism relies on personal testimony that connects at the level of the heart. 

One of the best examples I've seen of this is the Tim Horton's commercial where a woman and her husband are cleaning out her parents' house in preparation for downsizing. It's the
house where she grew up. You see a flashback of her as an excited child on moving day. In the garage they find a cardboard box of Tim's cups, each marked with a significant event -- "Moving in," "Jess's first hockey game," "Dan proposed to Jess." They take the box out to her Dad who looks at the house he will soon leave, so full of memories, and then writes on the Tim's cup in his hand.

This commercial has nothing to do with coffee and donuts. It's about relationships, family and the creation of memory and meaning. The message is that Tim's is there in all the important moments of your life. 

And, it's a true story. 
If you haven't seen it, here's the link:

Church people get nervous when we talk about marketing. It sounds exploitative and manipulative and it certainly can be. 

But our critical Number One Question today is:  Do we still believe we have good news that's worth telling people about? Do we still believe that we have something that can change people's lives -- something of vastly greater value than even the best computer, car or cup of coffee? 

And if so, why are we so afraid to share it? If marketers can talk unabashedly about evangelism, why can't we? 

I know why. That word has a lot of baggage. It's caused a lot of harm. And we don't want to simply emulate the purveyors of religious consumer products. 

But what can we learn from today's marketers about how to get a message  into people's hearts and homes? 

Some questions:

How can we offer people an experience of God that rings true, and that touches their lives at a deep level? 

How can we foster a sense of genuine participation so that people are connected by things that really matter?

How can we become more responsive to our fluid cultural landscape without losing our souls? (A special challenge for churches that were created to resist change.) 

How can we free people to tell personal stories and find ways of sharing those stories with others? 

Of course, it all has to start with the message. We need to do some soul-searching there. It's clear to me, anyway, that companies believe more passionately in their message than many churches. 

Sounds like plenty of material for at least five more blog posts. 

Stay tuned. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Searching for a Faster Horse

Henry Ford once said, "If I asked people what they want, they would have said, 'A faster horse.'" 

It's human nature to want what we already have -- to default to the known and familiar. And that is the basic flaw in our current JNAC (Joint Needs Assessment) system. We ask our congregations, "What do you want?" and, surprise, surprise, they tell us that they want more of what they already have -- a minister who will fulfill their desires for topical sermons, pastoral visiting and ability to relate to all ages. 

It's the equivalent of looking for a faster horse.  

And that works well if our goal is maintain our churches they way they are now and to satisfy our present congregations. 

Except that most of our churches are NOT satisfied with the way they are now. Most of our churches are not content that they are becoming smaller, older and more tired. 

It requires an act of courage and imagination to ask, not "What do we want?" but "What do we need to do?" If we ask ourselves what we want, we will say "A better version of what we already have." Henry Ford was a visionary who was able to see beyond the limited horizons of people's current wants and desires. 

The real question that is facing the church today is "What do we need to do to be faithful to the task that has been given to us?" What is God asking of us? What does faithfulness to Jesus look like? Those questions require a different level of vision and imagination. 

And the answers to those questions might have little or nothing to do with what we have now. 

As long as we keep asking ourselves what we want, we'll just get more of what we already have. 

And how is that working?